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Geisinger CEO calls for an end to ER waiting rooms, advocates for consumer-centric model

Eliminating the waiting room sends the message that the hospital is waiting for the patients, not the other way around, said Feinberg.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

(Thierry Geoffroy)(Thierry Geoffroy)

David Feinberg, president and CEO of Geisinger Health System, is proposing a bold new method for eliminating emergency room wait times: Get rid of the waiting room altogether.

In a recent piece posted on LinkedIN, Feinberg said the idea of the waiting room is outdated, essentially a relic, and that a new model needs to take shape, one which puts the focus more squarely on patients and their needs.

"A waiting room means we're provider-centered -- it means the doctor is the most important person and everyone is on their time," he wrote. "We build up inventory for that doctor -- that is, the patients sitting in the waiting room."

[Also: Mobile apps, tech tools present quick fixes to long healthcare await times]

Eliminating the waiting room is the key to being truly patient-centered, according to Feinberg, because it sends the message that the hospital is waiting for them, not the other way around. He also sees waiting rooms as a mechanism for compounding patients' misery.

"Being sick comes with a lot of suffering," wrote Feinberg. "We complicate that by adding more suffering."

Geisinger's goal is to reduce its ER wait times to precisely zero minutes within a two-year window. Through a combination of hiring more doctors and implementing some form of online registration, the system expects it could eventually start treating people the moment they walk in the door.

The actual physical space that comprises the waiting room, meanwhile, would be converted into a clinical space where patients are treated.

Feinberg's not the only one who has called for an end to the traditional waiting room. Alex Backer, founder and CEO of QLess, called for a similar move earlier this year. QLess is a mobile app that alerts users about their expected wait time.

[Also: Veterans Affairs Health Care system tries experimental partnership with CVS to cure long wait times for urgent care]

"Waiting rooms are one of the most wasteful uses of real estate in healthcare," said Backer. "They're almost completely unnecessary. That real estate could be repurposed more efficiently to be used for healthcare."

He hypothesized that it would also reduce illness, since spending an inordinate amount of time in a waiting room increases the likelihood of contracting disease, with sick patients all touching the same objects and breathing the same air.

Backer said hospitals that can eliminate this unpleasantness would likely generate better online reviews, a prime consideration in an increasingly consumer-centric industry, with patients more keen on shopping around for the best experience.

[Also: Zoom+ clinic network attracts millennials through 'no wait' convenience healthcare model]

He and Feinberg agree that the industry is ripe for that kind of disruption.

"Waiting rooms have never cured anybody," wrote Feinberg. "They're really not fun when your wife has just suffered a stroke. Treating people like a number is fine at the DMV because you don't have to go there all the time. It's not right in the healthcare system."

The drive to axe the waiting room isn't the only bold initiative to come out of Geisinger of late. In November 2015, the system launched its ProvenExperience initiative, through which patients can request refunds if they're dissatisfied with their hospital experience. The refunds can range from as little as $1 to as much as $2,000; as of last month, Geisinger had returned about $500,000 to dissatisfied patients.

Twitter: @JELagasse